‘Waking Up’ Is The Most Important Book I’ve Read
One book can be the difference between grasping in the dark and finding what you seek in the radiance of the sun. Sam Harris’ Waking Up was that sun, illuminating the path of mindfulness for which I’d long searched.
I was exploring before I picked it up. I meditated, read articles, and listened to podcasts on the topic. I poked around, looking for something. I didn’t yet know what it was I sought. But I knew there was something there, waiting to be found.
There’d been many clues. I’d listened to lectures by and chillstep mixes of Alan Watts, where he said things I couldn’t grasp but felt were profound. I’d had strange experiences driving long trips alone, where I’d feel a heightened awareness come over me. Over and over again something teased me with its mystery. There was something here to be found. I kept looking.
I had psychedelic trips and meditative experiences that opened doors to the transcendent. Others reported feeling ‘connected’ or ‘in union’ with the universe after taking psilocybin. My experiences had this sense too — they were certainly the most profound of my life — but this description didn’t sound quite right. I kept looking.
Then I picked up Waking Up and woke up.
As I read, the scattered hints cascaded into a single principle. The mystery hidden amongst piles of irrational content was revealed. What Sam Harris learned after a decade in the East was it.
The self is an illusion. You are not the architect of your thoughts. Thoughts, emotions, sounds, sensations, everything you’ve ever known, are appearances in consciousness.
The illusion of self arises when you identify with the conveyer belt of thought that ceaselessly appears in consciousness. Without mental training, thought forms a continuous narrative that appears to run just about every person’s life — without their knowing it.
Meditation is the long journey — and psychedelic the rocket-fuelled shortcut — from delusion to enlightenment. To be ‘enlightened’ is simply to understand (not conceptually, but by experience) the inherent selflessness of consciousness.
Consciousness is separable from the illusory self. This can only be proved by yourself for yourself — through subjective experience. Hence science struggles to get a firm grip around it — inherent subjectivity makes it slippery. But anyone — anyone — can experience it for themselves.
On psychedelics, in the right setting and with the right mindset, you can bathe in naked consciousness absent of thought and self. With regular meditative practice, you can dispel the illusion of self more and more.
“Once one recognizes the selflessness of consciousness, the practice of meditation becomes just a means of getting more familiar with it.” — Sam Harris
I struggled with the concept of spirituality for a long time.
It was clear early on that, in the modern world, God was dead and faith had run its course. Religion was our ancestors’ attempt to explain their world — something humans always did through myth. But it was also a time capsule for their values that no longer echo modern sensibilities.
With the rise of reason and science, which could explain the world without resort to faith, and evolving moral values that left no place for the prejudices of the past, no place remained for religion.
But, at least in the West, no spiritual baby remained after the religious bathwater was chucked out. Spiritual life was so entwined with the religious that, it seemed, a world of reason was a world without spiritualism.
The ‘spiritual’ alternatives weren’t attractive either. Astrology, mysticism, clairvoyance, ‘the universe’ — these concepts belonged to a category I considered faith-based, irrational, and unhelpful. Indeed, there seemed to be nothing there even so spiritually significant as an Alan Watts chillstep mix. I gave up the search.
Then, in the first 49 pages of his book, Sam Harris restored hope. Spiritual life was available, he argued. They’d been practicing a spiritualism of clarity in the East for thousands of years. It often tangled with religious creeds, but it could nonetheless be separated out and practiced as an independent system. Eastern myths weren’t a necessary condition of Eastern spiritual life. A secular, yet spiritual, life is possible and available.
To be spiritual is to recognize the inherent selflessness of consciousness. It’s to understand that the causes of suffering are not external events, however objectionable, but your reaction to them. Because all of those events come to you as appearances in consciousness, which of themselves are just that — appearances. It is your thought about and following the events that causes you to suffer.
Think of when someone says something hurtful to you. It takes 5 seconds. But with an untrained mind, the utterance might chain you to a ceaseless cycle of thought that you “can’t turn off” for days on end. In this case, anger and hatred — causes of suffering — only grow.
Experiencing the selflessness of consciousness gives you the freedom to check out of these cycles. Knowing them to be appearances of consciousness, you don’t identify with these chains of thought. A spiritually trained mind can notice thought in this way, without drowning in it, and allow it to pass by.
This grants freedom. True, deep, inner freedom. And that’s what spiritualism is really about — freedom. As Sam Harris says,
“In my view, the realistic goal to be attained through spiritual practice is not some permanent state of enlightenment that admits of no further efforts but a capacity to be free in this moment, in the midst of whatever is happening. If you can do that, you have already solved most of the problems you will encounter in life.”
Sam Harris, in Waking Up, taught me two lessons that changed my life:
- The self is an illusion — one from which consciousness is separable.
- A spiritual life is one where the illusion is noticed — and it’s that recognition that grants true freedom.
I intend to write about that freedom and its benefits on this platform. I hope to share profound lessons learned and spiritual growth found through secular mindfulness. It’s helped me so much. I hope it can help you, too.